LOS ANGELES – From “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Caddyshack” to “Casino” and “Bullitt,” no other luxury car features so prominently on the big screen quite like the Mercedes-Benz SL.
Its legacy began with gullwing doors in 1954 and quickly morphed into a roadster body style that became a status symbol and epitomized Hollywood with an easy-going, top-down sensuality.
The first five generations of the Mercedes SL were for the beautiful people, movie stars, the country club set. That’s not a bad thing, considering Mercedes has sold more than a half-million SLs worldwide over the past 60 years.
The all-new sixth generation ’13 SL is much more than a sedate conveyance to the yacht or movie set: It redefines this iconic roadster by integrating the latest technologies, reducing weight, boosting fuel economy, improving ride and handling and jacking up the power quotient – way up.
Considering the $100,000-plus price tag, the previous fifth-generation SL550 delivered middling power, at best, with 382 hp and 391 lb.-ft. (530 Nm) of torque from a 5.5L naturally aspirated V-8. At a fraction of the cost, aMustang GT with a smaller V-8 trumped the roadster by 30 hp.
The new SL550, with its downsized state-of-the-art 4.6L Bi-Turbo direct-injection V-8, storms the stage with 429 hp (a 12% increase) and 516 lb.-ft. (700 Nm) of torque (a 32% boost).
Plus, ECO stop/start is standard on the SL550 and its uplevel siblings, the 530-hp SL63 AMG and the 621-hp SL65 AMG.
In all three vehicles, ECO stop/start will turn on automatically at startup, but a button on the dash allows it to be turned off. The system does its job, but some drivers, particularly in this lofty class, are bound to find it jarring.
For the SL550, the system contributes to an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 14/21 mpg (16.7-11.1 L/100 km) city/highway, which represents a 14% improvement over the previous 5.5L.
Further boosting fuel economy is the switch from a fully hydraulic steering system to a speed-dependent electromechanical setup that provides excellent feedback from the road.
An all-new aluminumbodyshell – a first for a Mercedes production model – reinforces the meaning behind the SL moniker (super lightweight), and even lighter magnesium is used for the cover panel behind the fuel tank and roof.
Further reducing weight are two aluminum-intensive suspension systems. Active Body Control, which responds directly to driver inputs and road conditions to minimize body roll, is optional.
An innovative new feature known as Frontbass resides in the aluminum structures within the footwell. These spaces function as resonating chambers for the woofers and deliver a rich, deep tone for the standard Harmon/Kardon premium audio system. Mercedes says it’s the first time a sound system has been integrated into the body-in-white.
Compared with the steel-intensive body of the previous roadster, the new SL550 is 273 lbs. lighter, tipping the scales at 3,947 lbs. (1,790 kg).
That’s still a fair amount of mass for a 2-seater, but the SL feels light on its feet, attacking narrow roads winding through the Hollywood hills and demonstrating a ready reserve of power for spirited runs on the open highway.
The new SL actually is nearly 2 ins. (5 cm) longer and more than 2 ins. wider than its predecessor, which translates into a more spacious cabin with more shoulder and elbow room.
Appearance is everything here in Southern California – an affluent market that purchases 40% of all SLs sold in the U.S. – and Mercedes stylists gave the new car a sense of urgency, with more creases in the sheet metal and taut lines and a bull-nose front end that is more upright and sporty.
The Burl Walnut trim is attractive enough, nicely matching the caramel-shaded leather seats. But the drop-dead gorgeous color combo is Black Ash with red leather that covers the seats, door panels and even the lower portion of the instrument panel and center console, completely surrounding the driver. This package is why the well-heeled buy the SL.
And there’s loads of James Bond gadgetry, including the retractable hardtop that integrates Magic Sky Control, which switches the panoramic roof from light to dark with the push of a button. The frame for the panoramic roof, as well as for the standard glass lid, is 13 lbs. (5.9 kg) lighter than the previous top.
The windshield wipers integrate Magic Vision Control, which dispenses washer fluid through channels integrated in the blade, in both directions of travel. The result is no fluid splashing on the windshield.
The SL550 began arriving at showrooms in May, and the SL63 AMG launches this month with a starting price of $146,705 and a 5.5L direct-injection Bi-Turbo V-8 rated at 590 lb.-ft. (800 Nm) of torque.
Both those vehicles elude a gas-guzzler tax, but the same cannot be said for the SL65 AMG, which goes on sale in November powered by a 6.0L Bi-Turbo V-12 that brings down the house with 738 lb.-ft. (1,001 Nm) of torque. Pricing is yet to be announced.
In 2011, Mercedes sold 1,449 SL roadsters, which does not include the less-expensive SLK and more-expensive SLS, according to WardsAuto data. About 75% of that mix comes from the base SL550, and the AMG cars make up the rest.
Mercedes expects that mix to hold steady for the new roadster, although the AMG models may be more popular in these first few years.
How many SLs can Mercedes count on selling in the U.S.? Repeating the success of the outgoing fifth-generation roadster will be extremely difficult. In 2002, its first full year in the U.S., it set an all-time record for the nameplate, with 13,717 deliveries, according to WardsAuto data.
Sales remained robust for two more years, then plummeted each successive year. As the recession took its toll, SL sales fell to 4,025 units in 2009 and 2,385 in 2010.
The new SL550 went on sale in May and already is pumping new life into the segment: By the end of June, SL sales had reached 1,575 units, a 65.8% increase over the previous car in like-2011.
The best attribute of the new SL is that it proudly carries on the tradition as a stylish, sleek hardtop roadster in which people with money still will want to be seen.
And it is far more sporty than its predecessors, which means dynamic drivers who push the envelope and do more than toss golf clubs in the trunk are likely to give the SL a much longer look.
If so, and if the upper 1% continues to view the SL as the consummate aspirational vehicle, then another sales record and a starring role may be on the horizon.
|Vehicle type||2-seat, 2-door roadster|
|Engine||4.6L DOHC Bi-Turbo direct-injection V-8 with stop/start|
|Power (SAEnet)||429 hp @ 5,250 rpm|
|Torque||516 lb.-ft. (700 Nm) @ 1,800-3,500 rpm|
|Bore x stroke (ins.)||3.66 x 3.39|
|Wheelbase||101.8 ins. (259 cm)|
|Overall length||181.8 ins. (462 cm)|
|Overall width||73.9 ins. (188 cm)|
|Overall height||51.8 ins. (132 cm)|
|Curb weight||3,947 lbs. (1,790 kg)|
|Fuel economy||14/21 mpg (16.7-11.1 L/100 km) city/highway|
|Competition||Porsche 911V8 Vantage coupe and roadster Ferrari California Jaguar XK Maserati GT Spyder/Gran Sport|
|Lightweight beauty||Much heavier than 911|
|No gas guzzler tax||SL65 AMG not so lucky|
|Gorgeous red interior||Really worth 100 large?|